Rock historian Lester Bangs once observed that "rock and roll is the most democratic and all-American of art forms." What the late, great critic forgot to mention, however, is that it's also the most fun a young punk-rock insurgent can have without a book of matches.
For proof, look no further than Shannon Selberg, vocalist and frontman for the Minneapolis psycho-rockers called Cows. Known for his afflicted gaze, rabid stage antics and bizarre attire (he sometimes performs wearing nothing more than a layer of shaving cream and a jock strap made from a doll's head), the thirtysomething Selberg has made it his life's work to shock the living hell out of people. He's become so good at it, in fact, that many people have trouble separating the real Selberg from his diabolical onstage persona. "I've actually had friends of mine sit me down and tell me I'm some sort of death-trip misogynist," he remarks, laughing.
In conversation, Selberg hardly seems like the type of person who enjoys weaving fish hooks and cigarette butts into the locks of his pubescent beard; he's surprisingly articulate, soft-spoken and reserved. "I think it's a Midwest thing," he notes. "We don't really like to talk about ourselves too much. I notice when I read interviews that some of these guys take up six or seven inches with their quotes. Mine usually take up two inches at the most."
Selberg is equally modest when describing Cows' origins. He says that he and his bandmates--guitarist Thor Eisentrager, bassist Kevin Rutmanis and drummer Tony Aliveri, later replaced by current member Norm Rogers --started out in 1987 with the sole intention of getting a rise out of Minneapolis's underground community. "We just wanted to make people laugh and maybe scare them a little," he says. "Other than that, I guess we just wanted to put on a good punk-rock show."
Later that year, the quartet's horrifying handiwork was preserved on the LP Taint Pluribus, Taint Unum, recorded for a whopping $200. Impressed by the disc and reports of the band's warped hijinks, Minneapolis's Amphetamine Reptile imprint signed Cows in 1988. The first two albums released under this deal--Daddy Has a Tail and Effete and Impudent Snobs--were back-to-back noise orgies, but Peacetika, from 1991, was tighter and more focused; it found the act abandoning its earlier slice-and-dice stylings in favor of a more deliberate brand of songwriting. Selberg credits much of the album's clarity to producer Iain Burgess, who has continued to work with the group. "We just kind of wanted to kick back in the studio and relax a little bit more," he explains, "and Iain had a pretty good idea of what we wanted to do."
In spite of its title, 1992's Cunning Stunts was the band's most accessible album to date. Packed with Eisentrager's meaty guitar fusillades and Selberg's wrongheaded stories of death, deceit and greed, Stunts was a hit with misguided shock-rockers everywhere. One of the record's most memorable numbers is "Two Little Pigs," a song Selberg describes as a lustful encounter between two strangers that ends in a Twelve O'Clock High-style showdown. "It's kind of a dialectic where anything that a person does contains the germ of the opposite," he claims. "Any act that appears to be completely kind usually contains a germ of self-interest, while any victory you might have might contain a germ of defeat in it. It makes for a good story, as well as some good dynamics."
Cows' most recent release, Sexy Pee Story, exudes the same power and dark humor found on Stunts but sports a more pessimistic edge. "Shitbeard," for example, is an ode to depression (the "cold, black vine"), while "The Ouch Cube" concerns a man who murders his wife and children in a fit of rage. Sexy Pee Story is the kind of record that Charles Manson would record if he suddenly were to develop a sense of humor and a modicum of musical talent.
Despite the disc's decidedly offensive content, Selberg is hardly concerned that Cows' morbid, furioso approach to hardcore is a threat to the morals of America's youth. As he puts it, "I don't think we sell enough records to have to worry.
"I'm more laissez-faire about things like that," he adds. "There's a lot of people who want to place judgment on the people across the street, or in the next apartment, or even on the next block. And l really don't get it. I mean, what is everybody trying to defend? If you ask me, it's sort of like a reverse puritanism. People just need to lighten up."
Cows, with Chokebore and Supernova. 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 10, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $6.30 in advance/$7.35 day of show, 290-
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